The walk from the green room to the interview room took close to 60 seconds. Andrew Wiggins pushed through a crowd of ushers and reporters and turned left into a hallway inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
This was the walk of a No. 1 pick, slow and confident and a little dazed — a walk that Wiggins had dreamed about since his days on the hardwood of the Dufferin Clark Community Centre in his hometown of Vaughan, a suburb of Toronto. Now it was real. Now the Cleveland Cavaliers had selected Wiggins with the No. 1 pick of the NBA Draft on Thursday night. And now it was time to take a strut.
“I don’t really know how to feel,” Wiggins would say, smiling. “It doesn’t even feel real.”
He had hugged his mother, embraced his college coach and shaken the hand of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Then came a television interview, and a radio interview and a few minutes of spare time.
And then another announcement. As Wiggins waited on the floor of the Barclays Center, Silver came to the microphone again:
“With the third pick in the NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers selected Joel Embiid from the University of Kansas.”
The noised filtered through the crowd. Wiggins got word. And he smiled again. Embiid was back in the Los Angeles area after suffering a stress fracture in his right foot last week. But the Sixers had taken a chance. Just moments after Wiggins became the first Kansas player to be selected No. 1 overall since Danny Manning in 1988, now another Jayhawk was off the board.
“I was just proud,” Wiggins said. “It was a proud day … we became so close this year at Kansas.”
One year ago, Wiggins and Embiid had arrived together in Lawrence. Wiggins was the presumptive No. 1 pick in 2014, and Embiid was the long-term project with an immense ceiling. Now they were just the fourth second set of college teammates to go in the top three of the same draft.
“This is a boost for us,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Yes, a boost. Kansas had lost two lottery picks, and from a purely cold and analytical standpoint, perhaps Wiggins and Embiid did not leave much of a legacy in Lawrence. The Jayhawks finished 25-10 last season. Embiid hurt his back, missing the season’s last six games. The Jayhawks lost in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
But in the days before Wiggins took his draft walk, he thought about his days at Kansas. He thought about his coach. He thought about what he learned. He thought about his teammates.
He hoped, he said, that Kansas gained as much from him as he did from Kansas.
“College teaches you a lot,” Wiggins said, “about just sacrifice, hard work, eliminating all the distractions. Especially at a school like Kansas.”
Bill Self was a little anxious. It was nearly 6:40 p.m. on Thursday, and he stood on the floor of the Barclays Center, swapping stories with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo and ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and Jalen Rose.
Self looked at ease, but he was ready for some good news.
A few minutes earlier, he’d been on the phone with Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, and he heard that the Sixers were still interested in the injured Embiid. A stress fracture in his right navicular bone had stunted Embiid’s draft stock — Self believes Embiid would have gone No. 1 if not injured — and Self was hopeful for his former center.
For good reason, of course. No one would dispute Self’s record of turning college players into first-round picks. After Thursday, Self has produced 12 first-round picks in 11 seasons at Kansas. But he also knows the perception that none of those players have become stars.
“We’ve put a lot of guys in the league, but we haven’t put NBA All-Stars in the league,” Self said. “But you know what? I’m not sure their ceilings were All-Stars.”
This is where Wiggins and Embiid come in. Wiggins will go to Cleveland, where he’ll play alongside point guard Kyrie Irving and fellow Canadian No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett. Embiid will go to Philly and should have time to get healthy. Self believes both players can become franchise players and play in multiple All-Star Games — and maybe that can bolster their Kansas legacies. They were one-and-done players, yes, but that doesn’t mean they won’t help Self’s cause in the future.
“You want kids to time it right to come out, and obviously these two have timed it right,” Self said. “And it kind of cracks me up. We had some people say with Andrew, ‘We want more, we want more.’ Well, people that are paid a lot of money to evaluate guys know what he can eventually do. He’s just scratching the surface.”
Now the walk continues.
It was 15 minutes after Wiggins became had become the No. 1 pick, and the cameras followed. The pack grew bigger, and a man asked Wiggins to essentially shoot a live commercial for the NBA as he passed through a bare hallway on Thursday evening. It took two takes, but Wiggins nailed the second, and the walk continued. His suit jacket — specially designed by a famous NBA tailor named Wawaire Boswell — reflected off the hallway lights.
The suit was loud and glitzy — and perhaps a little garish. But in a way, it fit Wiggins’ quiet, understated confidence.
“You know what,” Self would said, “that tells you a little bit about him, how confident he is, because he doesn’t care.”
One year ago, maybe Wiggins would have cared. On the day he arrived at Kansas, fans were waiting for him at the airport and the hype in Lawrence was suffocating. Wiggins wasn’t fond of media interviews, hoping to deflect the spotlight, and he loathed talking about himself. Still, he had three basic goals for what would be his one season at Kansas, and he wasn’t shy about sharing them: Win a title, leave school early and become the No. 1 pick in the draft. Other than that, Wiggins didn’t offer much more.
But a year later, here he was, shooting an impromptu commercial in a hallway surrounded by reporters and NBA officials.
“I think college really prepares you for a level like this,” Wiggins would say, “especially a big-time basketball school like Kansas or a Duke or a Kentucky, where you’re always under the spotlight. You always have to watch your surroundings and watch what you do. You’re basically treated like a rock star.”
A few moments later, after another interview, Wiggins stepped back into the hallway. He listened for the next instructions. It was time to keep moving.
“It all just came so fast,” he said. “You know, this time last year, I just graduated from high school.”
Here is the list of Kansas' all-time first-round picks:
2013, Ben McLemore, No. 7, Sacramento Kings
2012, Thomas Robinson, No. 5, Sacramento Kings
2011, Markieff Morris, No. 13, Phoenix Suns
2011, Marcus Morris, No. 14, Houston Rockets
2010, Cole Aldrich, No. 11, New Orleans Hornets
2010, Xavier Henry, No. 12, Memphis Grizzlies
2008, Brandon Rush, No. 13, Portland Trailblazers
2008, Darrell Arthur, No. 27, Portland Trailblazers
2007, Julian Wright, No. 13, New Orleans Hornets
2005, Wayne Simien, No. 29, Miami Heat
2003, Kirk Hinrich, No. 7, Chicago Bulls
2003, Nick Collison, No. 12, Seattle Supersonics
2002, Drew Gooden, No. 4, Memphis Grizzlies
1998, Raef LaFrentz, No. 3, Denver Nuggets
1998, Paul Pierce, No. 10, Boston Celtics
1997 Scot Pollard, Detroit Pistons
1997 Jacque Vaughn, Utah Jazz
1995, Greg Ostertag, No. 28, Utah Jazz
1993, Rex Walters, No. 16, New Jersey Nets
1991, Mark Randall, No. 26, Chicago Bulls
1988, Danny Manning, No. 1, Los Angeles Clippers
1981, Darnell Valentine, No. 16, Portland Trailblazers
1976, Norman Cook, No. 16, Boston Celtics
1972, Bud Stallworth, No. 7, Seattle Supersonics
1969, Jo Jo White, No. 9, Boston Celtics
1966, Walt Wesley, No. 6, Cincinnati Royals
1962, Wayne Hightower, No. 5, Philadelphia Warriors